Kentucky women set for NCAA opener vs Navy

Hanging in front of the Kentucky locker room is a picture of the

Final Four logo with a clock next to it.

Ever since the first day of practice back in early October, that

clock has been counting down the days and minutes until the Final

Four in New Orleans. Now with the NCAA tournament here, the

second-seeded Wildcats hope to be in Louisiana at their first Final

Four when the clock reaches zero.

Kentucky will open up its NCAA tournament Sunday against No. 15

Navy. Seventh-seed Dayton will play No. 10 St. John’s in the second

game.

”You have no chance of winning the national championship if you

don’t get to the Final Four,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell

said. ”We’re focused on our region and trying to advance through

it and win our four games.”

The Wildcats made the regional final last season before falling

to Connecticut. The two teams potentially could meet again in the

Bridgeport final.

Kentucky (27-5), which is coming off a disappointing loss in the

SEC title games to Texas A&M, has made the NCAA tournament four

straight seasons and matched its best seeding.

”It’s very exciting to have an opportunity to be a number 2

seed,” Kentucky senior A’dia Mathies said. ”Our ultimate goal is

to go to the Final Four and it’s achievable.”

The Midshipmen (21-11) are making their third straight trip to

the NCAA tournament after winning the Patriot League tournament.

Navy lost to Maryland last season and DePaul the year before.

”The big thing we learned is coming in confident and just have

some fun out there,” junior center Jade Geif said. ”We’re going

to miss shots and they’re going to make shots. We know it’s a 15

vs. 2 seed, we’ll do what we can.”

No 15 seed has ever won an NCAA tournament game and Navy is

trying to buck a losing trend by the Patriot League which has

dropped its past 20 games in the tournament since Holy Cross

knocked off Maryland in 1991.

That doesn’t deter the Mids coach Stefanie Pemper was an

assistant for Harvard when the Crimson pulled off the first and

only upset by a 16 seed over No. 1 Stanford in 1998.

”It’s going to be a big challenge,” Pemper said. ”We’ll get a

really good breakfast and get our rest and just dig down. The NCAA

tournament is the most inspiring arena to play in as an athlete.

They’ll have much harder physical challenges ahead in their

lives.”

While Navy has won its conference tournament the past three

seasons, Dayton (27-2) has made the NCAA tournament the past four

seasons – earning an at-large bid in three of them. It shows how

far the Flyers have come in the past few seasons.

”We’re not just happy being here anymore,” Dayton coach Jim

Jabir said. ”It’s the highest seed we ever had. We want to play on

Tuesday, very, very badly. Just getting that first game in and

going home is not enough for this team. To be a national program we

need to get out of the first weekend and that’s a goal.”

It’s been a record season for Dayton as the Flyers won their

first Atlantic 10 regular season title before falling to Saint

Joseph’s in the conference tournament semifinals. The team has

already surpassed the school record for wins and is in its fourth

straight NCAA tournament.

Not bad for a squad that lost a lot to graduation last year and

has the sixth youngest roster in the country. The Flyers used a

balanced offense that features four different players averaging in

double figures.

”The six returners that we had coming back got together and

wanted this not be a rebuilding year,” senior Sam MacKay said.

While the Flyers’ roster had huge turnover, the Red Storm return

most of their team from last season’s regional semifinal run. The

biggest change was at head coach when assistant Joe Tartamella took

over for Kim Barnes Arico, who left for Michigan.

The Red Storm (18-12) struggled in the early part of the season,

losing three games in the final possession before turning it around

with victories in eight of their last 10 games. The Red Storm have

reached the past four NCAAs after only making it four times total

before their current run.

”It’s extra gratifying,” Tartamella said. ”The seniors get to

go out playing in four straight tournaments. Our goal has always

been consistency.”

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